Committee recommends city approval of controversial trail plan in Carmel Valley area

By Karen Billing

Staff Writer

An informal vote by a show of hands at the Oct. 19 Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve Citizen’s Advisory Committee meeting showed more than 100 users did not approve of a trail plan that does not allow for a crossing through the southeast corner of the Del Mar Mesa Preserve.

Despite the opposition, the CAC voted 7-6 to recommend that the city approve the resource management plan (RMP) for the Del Mar Mesa and Carmel Mountain preserves, along with its controversial trail plan. The motion passed by the board encouraged the city and the agency who owns the land, the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), to continue working on establishing an east-west connection.

That east-west connection was also recommended by the Carmel Mountain and Del Mar Mesa community planning boards. The plan will now go before the San Diego City Council for the final say.

A motion to approve the plan without conditions was defeated 7-6, as was a motion to reject the plan. Ultimately, the board got behind a motion that reasonable public access makes sense, understanding that the CDFG has an obligation to protect the resources they have.

“I think the RMP is a good compromise between closing off the area entirely and the more devastating plan that put more trails in that area,” said CAC chair Marvin Gerst, who voted in favor of the motion despite the fact that he doesn’t like the east-west connection. He sees it as becoming a transportation corridor through open space.

“Our job is to advise on what the community wants and what I’m hearing citizens saying is that this plan is not sufficient,” said CAC member Minette Ozaki. “Not one person in the room said they approve of the RMP as it exists and there’s no way I’m approving it.”

Some members worried that their conditional approval would get lost and that “encouragement” for a trail to exist some time in the future was not a strong enough message.

“Why approve a sub par plan with the hope that trail will happen because it probably won’t,” said CAC member Dean Kirby.

The crowd at the meeting was about as large and as passionate as they had been three years ago at the first public meeting on the RMP and trails plan. While user input resulted in trails such as “Rim Trail,” “Tunnel 4” into Deer Canyon and “Duck Pond Trail” getting added to the plan, they still wanted more of their favorites to be included—particularly an east-west connection in the southeast part of Del Mar Mesa.

California Department of Fish and Game owns that land and has not yet allowed any trails through that property due to the sensitive habitat of vernal pools.

Users said Del Mar Mesa is considered “one of the best places to ride in San Diego” with its single-track trails, winding and narrow that naturally slow speed. In some areas those small single tracks have been replaced with the wide SDG&E trails that have been compared in the past to a steep, pinball machine where even experienced riders get tossed left and right. Riders said that the road averages a 17 percent grade and can be riddled with vernal pools.

While users lamented that the city was closing trails, Chris Zirkle, deputy director of the open space division, said that wasn’t necessarily true.

“We’re not closing trails, these are trails that were never open,” Zirkle said.

Zirkle said the focus has always been ecological protection first, recreation second. The city aimed to get as many trails as possible while maintaining the integrity of the Multiple Species Conservation Program.

Mike Kim argued that the plan is unrealistic because the trails, while perhaps not legal, have been used for years and years.

CAC member Ron Mikuteit recalled when, in 1994, Del Mar Mesa had about 40 to 50 miles of trails to explore until more and more land was taken to develop homes. The new RMP will squeeze users into four miles on Carmel Mountain and eight miles in Del Mar Mesa.

The SDG&E trails, wide paths under “buzzing power lines,” aren’t exactly the trail experience the riders are looking for.

“We wanted to get loops in without hitting the hideous SDG&E roads,” Mikuteit said. “I have yet to see evidence of how one two-mile link across the mesa top will devastate the area.”

One of the most sentimental pleas from the meeting came from Kyle Kirby, a Boy Scout in Troop 1212 in Mira Mesa, who said that his troop loved to hike the canyons and spend time in nature.

“The tunnels in the Hobbit Trails challenged us and a great challenge is always good for Scouts,” Kirby said. “I rode the trails on a bike with my dad and brother and I wish to ride these trails again before my youth years are up.”

CAC member Suzanne Hall said while she could sympathize with a growing population losing recreation and trails, the group should remember that the preserve is one of the last places that wildlife can go as they are more impacted by the growing number of people.

“That magnifies the importance of protecting these places,” said Hall. “Our primary focus is environmental protection and we can’t lose sight of that.”

Many arguments were made that people will still use the trails regardless of the plan, as Dean Kirby noted people choose to talk on their cell phones while driving even though it’s illegal. Even though the trails have been closed since December of 2008, many admitted to still using them, one said they had earlier that day.

CAC member Anne Harvey was bothered by that prospect. She said when the planning first began, bikers were telling her that they would get behind a compromise and volunteer to go out on weekends to patrol closed trails and explain why they’d been closed and that if they respected the area, the trails could be opened again.

“Now you’re saying ‘We want more and if we don’t get more, we’re going to trash the area’,” Harvey said.

The bikers in the audience grumbled, as they did when the CAC made their vote to approve. CAC member Eric Basil encouraged those who weren’t in favor of the plan to send letters to City Council as a “last chance” kind of effort as City Council will be the last to weigh in.